10/23/2002 11:00PM

BC Countdown - F&M Turf: She's apple of Valenzuela's eye


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - When Breeders' Cup 2001 rolled around, Pat Valenzuela was keeping busy. He had a job with prominent Thoroughbred owner Bob Lewis - working for Lewis's Budweiser distribution company in Pomona, Calif.

A six-time Breeders' Cup winner, Valenzuela gathered with friends around a television set for the races.

"I remember seeing Tiznow and Chris McCarron win the Classic," Valenzuela recalled this week. "I remember I told the people I was watching with that I would be there next year."

He's not just here; he's nearly ubiquitous. In the 10 months since his comeback, Valenzuela has won riding titles at Del Mar and Hollywood Park, and on Saturday he and his agent Nick Cosato have mounts booked for seven of the eight Cup races.

Of the seven, surely the Filly and Mare Turf hopeful Golden Apples is the heart of Valenzuela's Breeders' Cup. His relationship with the filly bloomed this summer and typifies the kind of faith Valenzuela's California supporters have come to place in him again. And, more important, she's his best chance to win.

With trainer Ben Cecil guiding the purchase, Gary Tanaka bought Golden Apples for $450,000 in England early last summer. She won the Grade 1 Del Mar Oaks in her first American start, and in nine U.S. races - all either Grade 1 or Grade 2 stakes - Golden Apples was first or second, except once, when she finished third over a boggy course last fall in the Grade 1 Matriarch. She has become the best female grass horse in America - at least. "She's likely the best one in the world," Valenzuela said.

Golden Apples had never set foot on a dirt racetrack before coming to this country, and if her opinion counted she would never set foot on one at all.

"She hates anything to do with the dirt," Cecil said. "She won't jog on the dirt. She won't gallop on the dirt. We let her do what she wants to do when she trains. She'll just kind of hobbyhorse around out there."

Early this summer, Golden Apples developed a golf ball-sized throat abscess that required a difficult treatment.

"The antibiotics were so strong they knocked her sideways," Cecil said. "She lost a lot of weight. She grew a winter coat in the middle of summer, and she wasn't eating. She looked terrible."

Even so, Cecil kept a circle around the Aug. 17 Beverly D., and he brought Golden Apples back July 27 in the Grade 1 Ramona. She was still off her feed and struggling to regain form. "I was embarrassed to lead her over for the race, that's how bad she still looked," Cecil said.

Yet even when a slow pace and a tough trip compromised her, Golden Apples came running and missed catching Affluent by a neck.

It was a brave performance, but strategically Cecil began to wonder: If jockey Garrett Gomez had placed her closer to the soft pace, could she have won? Soon, Cecil found himself huddling with Cosato, and Valenzuela had picked up the first really big horse of his comeback.

"I'm not knocking Garrett, but we weren't having any luck," Cecil said. "I'd had a lot of luck with Pat before."

So had many other trainers, but Valenzuela's relapses and disappearances frequently overshadowed his talent. He missed a Breeders' Cup mount on Sunday Silence in 1989 but two years later he won two Cup races, a feat he duplicated in 1992. After riding Fraise to a fourth-place finish in 1993, that was it for Valenzuela and the Cup.

At the Budweiser plant last year Valenzuela was hatching plans for another return. This time, he thought, things would surely be different. But he needed another chance, and trainer Vladimir Cerin, described by one Southern California observer as a champion of lost causes, was among the first to embrace him.

"He had called me every three or four weeks for a year," Cerin said. "I don't know why, he was never my main rider. But that stuck with me. I saw the fire in Patrick's eyes to really complete his comeback this time."

Valenzuela's temper had mellowed into steady determination. He kept moving forward even when things worked against him. Said Cerin, "When he was first denied his license, I expected a violent show of temper. Instead, he just said, 'That's okay. I'll just have to work a while longer.' "

Cecil saw the same kind of resolve in Valenzuela and said he didn't hesitate turning Golden Apples over to him. "Every time I want him to work her, he's here," Cecil said. "He's watched tapes. He worked hard to get a feel for her. He was always very good with that."

And just as Valenzuela began working with Golden Apples, the filly turned a corner. When Valenzuela jumped off her back after her final work for the Beverly D., he predicted victory.

He was right. Just as Cecil hoped, Valenzuela quickly put Golden Apples into her race rather than letting her lag too far off the pace. She turned for home at Arlington pressing the leaders, passed them in midstretch, and easily held off Astra's late kick.

By Cecil's estimation, Golden Apples was only about 85 percent fit for the Beverly D., but now he had her moving the right way. Her September works had Valenzuela gushing - "His confidence level is huge," Cecil said - and in the Oct. 5 Yellow Ribbon, Golden Apples put together her first complete race since early this year. Again, Valenzuela had her close to a moderate pace and again she took control in upper stretch. At the finish, she was pulling away from Voodoo Dancer and far ahead of defending Filly and Mare Turf champion Banks Hill.

Valenzuela continues to be confident, and the trademark ebullience of his youth is beginning to show through again. "I do have calm determination," he said. "But there's a part of me that's still really pumped. When you feel yourself coming down the stretch, it's all still the same."